In 2003, I was on my way to Peru to hike the Inca Trail. I was the only Canadian in a small adventure group comprised mostly of Australians and Brits. As we waited for our flight from Lima to Puno, one of the women asked in which country I lived. I told her Canada. She looked into her husband’s eyes for a brief moment before the two of them moved several seats away from me. “We don’t want to risk getting SARS and ruining our vacation,” she said. I thought they were kidding. They weren’t.
SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, had made the headlines in February and March of 2003, when at least two people died of the disease in Toronto and nearly 260 others were placed on a list of probable exposure. Those affected were isolated in a hospital in Toronto’s east end. And while in June of that year, with the outbreak under control, the World Health Organization removed Toronto from the list of infected areas, the “avoid Canada” stigma was already active. Conferences and conventions canceled their arrangements and tourism numbers took a dive. My fellow Peru trekkers didn’t even ask if I was from Toronto. The idea of sitting next to a Canadian was enough. When I explained the situation (from across the room), the couple pretended that they were just joking. They weren’t.
We have seen these types of scenarios many times before and in many different situations. After the Bali bombings in October 2005, travelers canceled plans to visit Indonesia as a whole, despite the fact that the archipelago includes some 17,500 islands. And after the insurgency broke out in 2004 in the very southern Thai states of Songkhla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, the entire country of Thailand was under scrutiny with that BIG travel question, “Is it safe?”
Today, many travel advisors still stereotype an entire country in which localized violence, labor strikes, natural disasters and political upheavals occur. Their gut reaction is to close down discussions and move the client’s travels to a different destination, rather than put the traveler’s concern in perspective.
Here are five ways to get it right when a client is concerned about the safety of their chosen destination.
1. Yours is not to reason why NOT
This outdated staff directive (from at least the 1950s) does NOT apply to the travel industry, where it’s essential for travel advisors to have a handle on WHY a client wants to travel. In fact, the word “psychographics” is often used in the travel industry to understand what motivates individuals to travel. It could be a range of factors from relaxation and escape, to adventure and thrills, all under the umbrella of safety and security.
Some clients will want to totally avoid a country in which a level of unrest has occurred, while others will dismiss the matter and carry on with their plans, with due respect to the needs of the affected region. A travel advisor who assumes that all clients will want to avoid a destination under “concern” may be doing an injustice to part of their database.
2. Use Google’s cartography resources
Cartography refers to the study of maps. Google seems to have replaced much of what used to be taught in high school. Travel advisors, upon hearing of an incident in a country they market, should immediately consult a map to see exactly where the incident occurred and how far away it is from the tourist zones. A few minutes of research would show, for instance, that an outbreak of violence in Yala would not affect a client’s trip to Bangkok (roughly 600 miles to the north) or Chiang Mai (1,100 miles away) or even to Phuket (350 miles away).
3. Share government advisories
It’s hard to believe, but 20 years ago, government advisories tended to penalize an entire destination with an “avoid non-essential travel” or an “exercise extreme caution” alert when an incident occurred. Now in Canada and the U.S., the advisories tend to be more realistic and helpful by issuing alerts for specific areas, states and provinces of a country. Travel advisors should consider providing official travel advisory links to their clients, so the travelers can reassure themselves about the extent and location of specific unsettling events.
4. Trust the TT&S agenda
I’ve heard it whispered at travel conferences that TT&S (tourism boards, tour operators, and suppliers) want to increase visitation, come hell or high water. Having been around these travel professionals for over 30 years, I can place this whisper in perspective. Yes, these are, for the most part, highly talented individuals whose prime directive is to enhance tourism figures. But they also tend to be trained realists who understand that we live in a sometimes-cautionary world where unpredictable events can occur.
A worst-case nightmare for a tourism board, tour operator or supplier is for a traveler to be involved in a dangerous situation. Headlines and social media have been known to spread news (real or fake) at lightning speed. Therefore, you have to believe that most TT&S’s are on your side when it comes to providing sage, honest advice about travel safety in the country they represent.
5. Share information proactively
When a disruptive global event occurs, you and/or your agency team should go into “global concern mode” to learn as much as possible about the incident and formulate a message to your clients. Why wait for the clients to draw their own conclusions? Be on top of the situation. Send out an eblast saying, for example, “Just keeping you in the loop about the recent forest fires in Franistan…” Post it on your website under “Travel Concerns Around the World”; and on your social media platforms, for example, “Travel Perspective on the Volcano Eruption in Hermania.” Proactivity shows your clients that you have their backs!
Car 54, where are you?
I know I am dating myself somewhat, but this popular 1960s sitcom started off with the theme song saying, “There’s a hold-up in the Bronx. Brooklyn’s broken out in fights. There’s a traffic jam in Harlem that’s backed up to Jackson Heights…” If we reacted to the song, as many consumers react to today’s headlines, then no one would have visited New York City. But savvy travel advisors would have comforted their clients by informing them that Manhattan’s theater district, as well as the major museums, shopping areas, and the Statue of Liberty were still perfectly fine to visit.
The term “travel advisor” suggests that the advice and counsel they provide covers all aspects of exploring the globe. Preparing yourself with information equates to preparing your clients before they head out to explore the globe.